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What’s Pho Breakfast? Eating Across Vietnam

We stood chatting around a pile of luggage, sweating, yawning and comparing experiences from various flights. Another group waited in line for a much-needed coffee. The tropical sun filtered in through the windows and conversations in half a dozen foreign languages rose and fell in the background. After almost a full day of travel, Sternies on the Emerging Markets Association’s Spring Break trek had arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam. For our group of MBA1, Langone, One-Year MBA students and significant others, a week of amazing food, beaches, smog and sheer adventure were about to begin.

Soon after arriving, our group leaders made contact with our rakish tour guide who went by the name “V”. V ushered the thirty-odd, jet-lagged Sternies onto a bus that left the gleaming new airport and  into downtown Hanoi. After quickly checking in and changing, we made our way to the Old Quarter for our first meal in a restaurant overlooking Hoan Kiem lake and its brilliantly lit, bright red bridge. Despite our collective exhaustion, excitement vibrated through the room. The city shone through the thick fog and music reverberated from a nearby festival. After a feast of spicy soup and noodles and some light exploration, we turned in to get rested for the day ahead.

Just one of many food excursions for Sternies across Vietnam’s most delicious cities.
Photo credit: James Prager

Hanoi was the epicenter of Vietnam’s communist movement in the 20th century. The sights reflect the diversity of the country’s history and culture. We visited the Tran Quoc Pagoda in the waters of a lake, reflected on questionable history and outright propaganda at the Hanoi Hilton and took in a frenetic mass of scooters, cars and people among the ramshackle streets and hectic intersections.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the stop was the street food tour. We split into two groups and were led through the chaos of street markets to enjoy handmade bahn mi as well as beers between trains at a bar on the railroad tracks.  There was also the taste of fresh barbeque on small plastic stools at foot-tall tables surrounded by chatting locals. The tour was capped off with fresh fruit on ice with coconut milk and one last beer on the streets of the old quarter before heading out to Phuc Tan Lighthouse for a private dance party overlooking the muddy Red River.

Halong Bay was our next stop after Hanoi. We fueled up on pho and sweet Vietnamese coffee, then drove several hours north of the city through a rambling countryside of rice paddies that gave way to dramatic hills and eerie karsts rising out of the ocean. We pulled into a marina in a resort town and first laid eyes on our hotel for the night: a luxurious cruise complete with a rooftop bar and massage parlor. We boarded the ship and set off into the eerie, mist-shrouded bay, transfixed by the karsts looming in the fog over turquoise water. We enjoyed a day of kayaking in a cove, eating delicious seafood on the boat and touring the magnificent Sung Sot cave. After a day of adventure, we rallied for an all-night party at the rooftop bar, overlooking the bay full of other cruise ships and exhausting the cruise’s beer supply.

After a slow start the next morning and a heartfelt thank you to the crew, we returned to dry land and headed to the airport. Next on the itinerary was the beautiful Hoi An. On the long bus ride, V, still our guide on the trip, explained the unique history of the city. Serving as a trading post and strategic port for centuries, Hoi An blended architectural and cultural influences of its past: the beautiful Japanese covered bridge, several Chinese Buddhist temples and French villas. The city is also known for its beautiful beaches and world-class tailors. After enjoying a glass of chilled fruit juice at our gorgeous hotel, we made our way into the old town to experience the highlight of Hoi An: the Full Moon Lantern Festival. During the full moon, hundreds of colorful lanterns are strung across the charming tree-lined streets and hundreds more are lit and released into the waters for an awesome spectacle of shimmering, colorful lights floating on the still water.

The next day, we had an early start  to the My Son ruins in the nearby jungle. Built in the 4th century by the Champa people, the ruins consist of several Hindu temples scattered throughout a lush valley. Hungry after a dose of history, we returned to town to enjoy bahn mi as recommended by Anthony Bourdain. After exploring the beautiful temples and architecture, and buying tailored suits, we finally hit the beach. One small group embarked on a bike tour of the countryside on a nearby island, visiting rice farms, rice wine distilleries and noodle houses among the quiet green paddies. That night we toasted our farewell to Hoi An at a Japanese speakeasy, grabbed one last bahn mi and packed for our next stop: Saigon.

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is the booming heart of Vietnam’s commerce. Upon landing at the airport, we were immediately greeted by the sky-piercing towers rising over the commotion of the country’s largest city. Bourdain once said that “one of the great joys of life is riding a scooter through Vietnam.” Within an hour of checking into our hotel, we experienced this first hand.

Our first evening was spent zipping through traffic on a moped street food tour. After stopping to photograph the city from afar, we started to eat. First up were fried bananas with coffee at a stand just off the main road. We made a brief visit to Chinatown for some roast duck before setting off again through a maze of back alleys and narrow streets. We passed through the flower district and ducked in a tiny passage to discover a huge market packed with young people enjoying their Friday night out. Here, we stuffed ourselves with a cavalcade of grilled seafood, beers and still more seafood. Finally, with our scooters groaning under our weight, surely doubled, we sampled sweet rice pudding from a small street cart. Bursting, we returned to the hotel to relax by the rooftop pool and prepare for our final day in Vietnam.

Our last day was a whirlwind of experiences. We bussed several hours outside of town to the Mekong Delta where we boarded a small boat to chug up the river. Along the way, we visited a coconut plantation and sampled coconut honey candy. After the boat, we bolted on rickshaws along narrow jungle tracks to a remote restaurant and enjoyed fresh Mekong fish. When lunch was finished, we climbed aboard tiny sampans three at a time and drifted slowly through silent canals in the hot sun back to our bus. From the bus we toured downtown Saigon, visiting the cathedral, the post office and the war museum. V gave a farewell speech over another excellent dinner and we capped the night with a party at a rooftop bar overlooking the entire city.

The next morning, the group dispersed in waves, saying their goodbyes at the airport. Some had extended vacations in other countries while others were heading home. A couple stayed to explore Vietnam for a few more days. Regardless of our next destination,  we all agreed that none of us would forget the friendships and experiences that we had gained in Vietnam.

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